THE LETTER 27 Spring 2003, pages 83-89
The Joy of Life – Henri Matisse -1906
What we see here on this canvas is not a scene from the world we see ordinarily. This painting – The Joy of Life – is not conceived in terms of verisimilitude. The aesthetics of realism is being replaced by the Oriental aesthetics of decoration. No waves crash on this yellow beach to disturb the dancers, musicians or lovers. This is a dream world of Arcadian patterns, paradisal design and pre-lapsarian colours.
A dream world inspired by reality, the theme of The Golden Age is an ancient myth. Matisse was here trying to bring the theme to life, because myths had lost their flavour, lost their traditional role and function of accessing a background that made sense of the foreground of peoples’ lives. Once upon a time, myths were marvellous mediations of meaning. But the aesthetics of realism had grown old, had become a stylisation rather than a style, and a new means of expression was required. In this painting all the action and inaction takes place on the ground, the ground of background.
This is an imaginary world, not tied to anatomical accuracy, naturalistic colour or mathematical perspective. We see green trees, blue grass and a loving couple with only one head!
This is not anecdotal art. The principles of decorative art free Matisse from the naturalism of realism and the superficiality of ornamental art, to enclose the grammar of the myth through abstract signs, albeit rooted in reality, the reality of the human figure more than…